Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dead Wood: The Filmmakers Speak

I reviewed Dead Wood a few weeks back and, at the time, promised an interview with the filmmakers. Instead, I've turned an entry over to them so what follows is all their own input, verbatim, without any interruptions from me.

There are three of us responsible for Dead Wood: Me (David Bryant), Sebastian Smith and Richard Stiles. It was very much an equal share of decision making in all areas of the film. We met at University of Wales, Newport on the Film degree course. Seb and Rich were working together throughout the three years and continued after uni producing music promos. I concentrated on writing screenplays and started a production company making corporate films. The three of us then collaborated on a 2 minute short called Dead Wood (available on the website) which was very popular online. We continued on various short projects before deciding it was time to make a feature. From our past work it would naturally be a horror - the perfect genre to start out on a low budget.

We had another screenplay called Wake that we wanted to produce, but found the budget a problem, so decided to go guerrilla, see what we had and couple that with the kind of movie we wanted to make. We self funded our miniscule budget, and the whole film was supposed to take under a year. We all decided a woods setting would be best simply because we were planning to shoot with natural light (no interiors). City shoots mean permits and lots of set design plus we always find low budget films seem conspicuous by their lack of background artists.

The first draft was written in three days - then we reworked it over and over. We had a screenplay we were happy with - until a friend suggested we watch a film called Dead End that had a premise that was a bit uncomfortably close. We then rewrote with more of a man versus nature theme, which was much heavier at first and felt too much like a poke in the ribs, so we tried to make nature fight back but treat it with subtlety. This was a difficult balance. The environmental subtext had grown out of necessity for our ‘evil spirit’ to have reason rather than us sitting down and saying lets make an environmental film. We liked that this gave the film a more spiritual, supernatural core but we really didn’t want to hammer home the message too heavily. Although we did shoot more footage which made the point more obvious, ultimately we decided it was better just to hint at it.

When shooting, there would be three directors so we decided it would be best to work out a constant visual style. We ended up storyboarding every shot of the original shooting draft. The last thing we needed to be doing was discussing how to shoot the scene on location. We shot two cameras much of the time, with the ‘A’ camera following the storyboard and the ‘B’ camera operating more freely, looking for extra shots. Often in the edit, it is this ‘B’ camera footage that we have used to cover a scene rather than the shots we had planned. We shot digitally using knowledge Rich & Seb had picked up on various shorts and music videos, such as to avoid the wide-angle lens, opting to shoot on the long lens with a large aperture to give a shallow depth of field, which makes the film look so much more filmic. Also we kept to close ups and medium shots as much as possible.

What you have to understand with Dead Wood is, it wasn’t just that there were three directors; it’s that we were the whole crew! You look at the end credits of any movie and there’ll be reams and reams of people all doing their own job, making sure everything runs smoothly. We had none of that. We’ve worked on so many shorts and when you’ve got a crew working for nothing it’s just so much hassle. You feel bad that they’re doing long hours; you’ve got to feed them, move them around and put them up. But more importantly, because they’re not ‘employees’ suddenly you’ve got all these other people who all have an opinion on how the next shot should go, there’s hours of discussing everything and suddenly it’s night and you’ve not shot anything. So we did everything. Now we’re hauling kit around, collecting people, buying food and not directing. But luckily there were three of us…

On location having three directors worked surprisingly well. When one of us started to lose the plot or have to go and sort out some issue, another of us could take over. It was like tag team wrestling. We could even shoot two scenes at the same time, much to the annoyance of the actors who got little downtime – although seeing as they were stuck in the woods it was better for them to be working than hanging around.

The schedule for the shoot was eight days for the main woods shoot to be followed by a few additional weekends as required for the London scenes and any pick-ups. As it turned out, these pick-up and re-shoot weekends went on for a lot longer than expected! The post production was a long and laborious task. We wiped practically the whole soundtrack and recreated it from scratch with new ADR and sound effects. Likewise nearly every shot has been enhanced in some way, from simple grading to new backgrounds and complex special effects. It’s been a long slog - when you can only work on a film part time it is difficult to make progress. The film was constantly evolving - our deleted scenes are probably longer than the finished movie! We have learned an incredible amount on Dead Wood, mostly just what not to do. I think we’re all pleased that we had freedom enough to make mistakes on this film, where we could go back and fix them.

When we started Dead Wood I don’t think we really grasped the scale of work involved in making a feature film. The logistics of the shoot and the post production were mind blowing and eventually it became more of an endurance test. I think next time we would have a much better understanding of what we were letting ourselves in for and could avoid many of the mistakes we made this time around.. We're very pleased with how Dead Wood has turned out, although we're under no illusions that it redefines the genre in any radical way. We set out to make an entertaining movie that felt like a movie - not a stretched out short or low budget half finished film - and we are proud to have done that. Dead Wood is always entertaining and moving forward. We think the production values are very high, especially in comparison to other British horror output, with some very cool and surprising FX and scare sequences. We have to thank Adam Langston for one of the films best aspects, the music score. It is a great score that we were overjoyed with. On the flip side we feel the film suffers from the lack of a totally solid central theme. This was always a weakness in the screenplay that we tried hard to work around but we feel we never quite pulled it off. It’s hard to see what other people see and I think the film - especially regarding the villain - is a bit too open to interpretation. We also miss a few moments of sex and violence, but that could also be a positive as it separates Dead Wood from the other woods set movies.

We always planned the film to screen internationally at horror festivals before looking at DVD distribution. The real aim of making Dead Wood was to show that we could produce a full-length feature that could compete in the DVD market. We’ve got some great artwork that helps. Ultimately though, the goal is to get the next film into production.

We all have our ideas for our next projects. I (David) am working on three feature screenplays, a drama/horror, an urban thriller and a comedy, all in the low budget range as you have to be realistic about what to do next. Sci-fi is a genre that we would love to have a go at tackling. Seb is writing a novel and looking for the right script before directing anything else.

Our influences on Dead Wood started with films like Juon but came from a myriad of sources from The Wicker Man to Southern Comfort - which was structurally the biggest influence on the original draft. On the subject of films in general I am catching up on 70s and 80s thrillers such as Night Moves and Cutters Way. Rich is a firm believer in the ‘they don’t make em like they used to’ school of thought with a DVD collection firmly focused around the 70s. Seb is a big horror film fan; the first movie he saw was 'The Legend of Boggy Creek' which he was terrified by. Doesn't stand up quite so well on a revisit 30 years later mind.

To give advice to new film makers we would say research your format, don’t overstretch yourself in terms of resources, and realize that everything will take four times longer than planned. Get to know your technology before you get on set. Also, if possible, find an editor to edit as you shoot so you’ll know by the next day how a scene turned out. Spend as much time as you can on casting and rehearsals. Also, give time to the script, make sure it is as solid as it can be before you shoot or you’ll end up taking much longer fixing it… and try to avoid production meetings in the local pub. Other than that our philosophy would be to make a film you want to watch, and make sure you're in it for the long haul.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really like this format - giving the filmmakers a chance to have their say too. Good stuff, film ick.